Successful Hamburger Helper Substitute!

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Homemade Hamburger Helper - A from-scratch, homemade hamburger helper recipe using real food. A kid-friendly and husband-approved easy real food dinner!

Homemade Hamburger Helper - A from-scratch, homemade hamburger helper recipe using real food. A kid-friendly and husband-approved easy real food dinner!

My husband is not always a fan of the healthy changes I make in the kitchen, but the man has to eat. He doesn’t want to cook for himself, so he’s generally compliant so that his belly gets full. He does understand and appreciate my concern for our family’s health, but sometimes my “I’m-not-going-to-buy-this-anymore” decisions hit a nerve.

For example.

When I said I thought I should stop buying pop (soda, for those of you not in Michigan!), he definitively stated that he would have to buy his own. He even tapped my frugal sensitivity by highlighting how much the pop in his office machine costs. Foiled!

I couldn’t let him spend an arm and a leg on junk, so I buy his junk only on super sale. I’m his dealer, so to speak. At least it’s not a matter of faith and morals, so I don’t think I’ll have any extra Purgatory time for it!

For example.

Hamburger Helper. I know this is bad stuff: MSGs, trans fats, HFCS, white pasta, ETC. There’s not much in the ingredient list that grows in the soil or eats things that grow in the soil. It is not real food. In spite of the intellectual knowledge, I’ve had quite an emotional journey with Hamburger Helper, unfortunately:

  1. As newlyweds we consumed HH almost once a week.
  2. I graduated to keeping it on hand because it was the only way I could get hubby to cook for a night.
  3. I decided it was no good for us, then was totally tempted by an “almost-free” sale — and I caused a bunch of boxes to be thrown away! (Gasp! Wasted food! If you have followed me for a while you know that’s a terrible pet peeve of mine. I you have missed this old post, it’s one of my favorites: The Fate of Returned Food in Grocery Stores.)
  4. I finally committed to never buying it again. We had a decent stock stored up for the occasional “boys’ nights” that my husband and son have. Their tradition is to make HH together. TRADITION. We finally ran completely out, and let me tell you, I received some nasty glares from hubby as I offered alternate ideas for a boys’ night menu.
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Men and Their “Traditions”

You must understand this about my husband: tradition is vital to his survival. This is the man who loves the very act of putting together a fake Christmas tree because he has fond memories of helping his dad every year as a child. He is the type who wears the same socks (or whatever!) for every sporting event as long as the team is winning. (If you change anything, you’ll cause the team to lose, you see – even if the team is on TV. Do any other husbands think they affect the world like this?)

He’s got a Labor Day weekend camping trip that’s almost 10 years running with his friends, same spot, same menu, same activities.

We had to walk across campus in the snow for every basketball game at MSU wearing only our Izzone T-shirts for 4 years, because that’s how we walked to the first game, and they were on a massive win streak. Seriously.

He and Buddy Boy make Hamburger Helper when they have a boys’ night. How am I supposed to buck this system by suggesting they make spaghetti!!??

Homemade Hamburger Helper - A from-scratch, homemade hamburger helper recipe using real food. A kid-friendly and husband-approved easy real food dinner!

I thought I was going to be in the doghouse big-time.

I mentioned this dilemma at the Sneaky Trans Fats post, and many kind readers offered their “homemade hamburger helper” remedies. Husband was, naturally, very skeptical. More glaring. Katie shrinks into her computer chair and says a silent prayer for a miracle.

My Miracle

Homemade Hamburger Helper - A from-scratch, homemade hamburger helper recipe using real food. A kid-friendly and husband-approved easy real food dinner!

Part of boys’ night is the novelty of eating in front of the TV. Son was introduced to Fraggles this night!

Want to know what a miracle sounds like?

“Mmmmmm, this is GOOD! Really, really good!”

*sigh of relief*

Enduring all the skepticism was worth it! My husband, to his credit, really stepped up to the plate (wearing the proper socks, I am sure) and had a great attitude in front of my son about trying a “new” hamburger helper. I made it as easy as possible by actually getting out all the ingredients for him. It really wasn’t any harder than the box.

Homemade Hamburger Helper - A from-scratch, homemade hamburger helper recipe using real food. A kid-friendly and husband-approved easy real food dinner!

I didn’t decide on which recipe was first to walk the plank until the night of its big debut, but I had to go with John Mastro’s Classic Cheeseburger Macaroni recipe, mostly because he’s a dad, too, and he quips “a tall, cold one for the dads” at the end of the recipe. I was banking on some manly camaraderie there!

I was even willing to allow the 1/2 cup of ketchup that the recipe calls for, high-fructose corn syrup and all, but I had already opened a big can of tomato sauce two days before because I was originally planning on using this recipe from the comments at the trans fat post. Time to improvise (more hasty prayers)! The recipe they made that night is still the same one we use today, now with more kids:

Homemade Hamburger Helper - A from-scratch, homemade hamburger helper recipe using real food. A kid-friendly and husband-approved easy real food dinner!

Tell me this doesn’t look just like the “real” thing from a box!

My son had a bunch of fun helping brown the beef and measuring the spices. I overheard him coaching Daddy on how he holds the measuring spoon and the adult pours the spice into it, and then he gets to dump it in the pan. Too cute! He loves the fact that Dad lets him get right up to the stove and help cook, which I don’t often do because I’m juggling the toddler as well. He’s so responsible about the hot food (and going to make a wonderful husband someday, I might add! See how he cuts food to help cook here!)

4.8 from 4 reviews
Dad's Cheeseburger Helper
Note: Ingredients often use affiliate links to Tropical Traditions, but obviously you should shop for the best price and try to keep your dollars local when you can.
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 tsp. onion powder or 2-3 tsp. minced onion
  • ¼ tsp. garlic powder (or 1 clove minced garlic)
  • 1¼ c. tomato sauce
  • hefty squirt of mustard
  • 1¾ c. water
  • salt to taste (at least ½ tsp?)
  • 2½ c. pasta (see note below)
  • 2 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  1. Brown and drain beef.
  2. Stir in pepper, onion powder, garlic, tomato sauce, and mustard.
  3. Pour in water and pasta.
  4. Bring to a boil and reduce heat;
  5. Cover and simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the water is absorbed and the pasta is cooked.
  6. Turn the heat off and stir in the cheese.
We have successfully used gluten-free pasta (brown rice), and cut a ¼ c. of water from the recipe to avoid mushiness.

Baby Steps and Future Goals

Would this be more healthy with real onion, some colored peppers thrown in, fresh garlic, and whole wheat pasta? Of course. Do I know how to pick my battles? One must, if one is to survive in a family. It’s okay to cheat a little, especially when you’re taking a baby step away from something even more unhealthy. This is a good forward momentum move for us.

Homemade Hamburger Helper - A from-scratch, homemade hamburger helper recipe using real food. A kid-friendly and husband-approved easy real food dinner!

My next task is figuring out how to reverse engineer hubby’s FAVorite Hamburger Helper, Double Cheesy Enchiladas. It’s rice based, so it’s an entirely different ballgame (but it’s GOT to be doable, especially if I wear the same underwear I had on last week with this win!). UPDATE: Check out the Reverse Engineered Hamburger Helper Style Carnival!

And how do I know my husband is finally on board with this? He’s ready to call the recipe his own: “I think it would be even better with bacon.”

I agree with him completely.

Other ways I’m moving away from boxed food:

Click here for my disclaimer and advertising disclosure - affiliate links in this post will earn commission based on sales, but it doesn't change your price.

84 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. JeannaMO says

    I love your HH post! My hubby is a little freaked out about all the things I do “from scratch”. This weekend he caught me putting vinegar and a few drops of essential oils in the softener dispenser of our washing machine when I was doing his laundry. He said (joking, of course) “I don’t know what kind of witches brew your coming up with but just use Tide on my clothes”. Then, after his jacket was dry he still kept smelling it like I had contaminated it. Eventually he rubbed a bounce sheet (uggh) all over it. So, he’s fighting it every step of the way. But I gain some ground sometimes. And he loves me in spite of all my excentricities! But I do laugh when I hear him bragging about me to his mother. Gotta love that! She is a long-time, nothing but – Tide user and we have all agreed that we’ll just keep that “our little secret.” Ha!

  2. says

    What a great idea to make over a recipe like that! I know men like their traditions but wow, that recipe sure sounds better than any Hamburger Helper I ever tasted! So glad they liked it – although I can’t imagine how they could not!

  3. says

    This made me laugh so stinkin’ hard………….

    (but it’s GOT to be doable, especially if I wear the same underwear I had on last week with this win!)

    I’m in the same boat on some dishes too :-)
    .-= Jen´s last blog ..Vegetable Pasta Sauce =-.

  4. says

    That is awesome!

    I didn’t know you guys were MSU fans…! :) Did you do your undergrad/grad work there? Or, just fans? I ask because we’ve called MSU “home” for half a decade as we finish our PhDs.
    .-= SnoWhite´s last blog ..Red Pepper Soup =-.

    • Katie says

      We met there and are both alums…and I’m going to the game tomorrow (with 58 layers of clothing and an umbrella) with my best friend and roomie from college!

  5. Sarah W says

    Great post! I’m going to try this one of these days.

    Have you ever tried to make the NT ketchup yet? I made some this summer. If I were to do it again, I’d leave out the fish sauce as the odor/flavor is quite noticeable (not horrible, but I’m just not accustomed to ketchup smelling like fish). My DH sounds rather like yours and he’ll eat it, so hopefully yours would too. :)

    (The fish sauce I used is not homemade. Bought it an asian grocery. There were so many to choose from and I didn’t know which to pick, so maybe others aren’t as fishy as the one I bought?)

    • Katie says

      I tried Passionate Homemaking’s HM ketchup, but I don’t know if it’s similar to NT’s. Fish sauce would be a big no-no for my husband! He wouldn’t eat the HM ketchup that I made anyway…

    • Danielle says

      Love this post! My hubby is also a MSU fan and nothing stands in the way of those games! He also loves his traditional dishes…but I have now successfully substituted coconut oil into all of his favorite childhood cookie recipes….and he loves them more! Small steps….patience!

  6. says

    My hubby is a lot like yours in that he is not thrilled about changes I am trying to make in the kitchen and in the food we eat. I would love to hear any more tips/tricks/advice you have for getting hubbies on board!

    I guess it is all about baby steps. I was telling my hubby how I wanted to make homemade peanut butter. He said, “If you did that then we could have homemade bread, homemade jam and homemade peanut butter for sandwiches.” When he says things like that it makes me SO happy! :)

    • Katie says

      Welcome to KS! All my friends who get into this nutrition stuff agree that it’s a challenge to get the husbands on board…but you did an excellent job of answering your own question! I like to point out “good” homemade meals and why they’re special while we’re eating and enjoying them. Just like your husband said about the bread, it makes the work you do stand out and seem worth it.

      A couple people asked questions about husbands lately, so I’ll touch on that Monday in a post!
      Thanks for sharing!

  7. Greta OH says

    LOL! My husband and I just had a similar discussion (confrontation?) when he mentioned he was in the mood for HH. I responded, “I’m sure I can make something like that!” To which he grumbled something under his breath. : ) I’ll surely be trying this recipe soon!

  8. tina says

    Pop! I grew up in Michigan and it wasn’t until I moved out of state that I learned what the rest of the world called pop.

    I’d be grateful if my husband and four year old son would make hamburger helper once every couple months. I wouldn’t even care how bad it was for me! Of course, the meat would have to be grass-fed.

  9. says

    Great post!! It’s so true. My husband is ok with making food from scratch instead of boxed stuff, but heaven forbid I suggest adding some chopped greens to a recipe that doesn’t call for it! haha Usually when a meal comes out well I’ll say, “This is good, what would you do differently next time to change it up?”

    He’s getting there. I’m just grateful he cooks at all. Sometimes. :-)
    .-= Michelle @ Find Your Balance´s last blog ..Slice it, Stuff it, Top it, Eat it =-.

  10. says

    I am hoping you didn’t go to the MSU games *literally* in only your t-shirts! ROTFL

    That Hamburger Helper stuff looks mighty good, though, and right up my hubby’s alley, so I’m copying it down.

    (BTW, where husbands are concerned, you know you have really made progress when they get to the point of *preferring* the healthier stuff. Mine is very patient and tolerant of all of the changes we’ve made since our marriage, but for a long time he still preferred the storebought stuff. [He still drinks Coke, too, so I hear you on buying it when it’s cheap!] But a while back I ran out of cheddar cheese and I made him a grilled-cheese sandwich with sliced American cheese, and storebought bread, and he told me later that it wasn’t nearly as good as grilled cheese with cheddar cheese on my homemade bread – which he hadn’t cared much for when I first started making them that way. That’s when you know you’ve come a long way. :) )
    .-= Rachel R.´s last blog ..Quotable – housework =-.

    • Katie says

      Ahem. Thank you for pointing out the technicality. 😉

      Love the story about the hubby preferring homemade! That is quite a benchmark!

  11. says

    My mom never cooked Hamburger Helper and I don’t either. My husband used to eat boxed Rice A Roni and that pasta in a box (I don’t know what it’s called) but he doesn’t any more.

    I think that it’s so important to celebrate our progress along the way – like you did here. We all grow at our own pace and we all have our own things we want to change. I’d love to be better at grocery shopping and using what we have on hand. I am horrible at it…but I’m making progress.

    Thanks for linking to Slightly Indulgent Mondays!

  12. Martine says

    I made this for dinner tonight with gluten free pasta and added a bit of cajun spice for some kick. My son announced it was his new best friend, and claimed the leftovers for his lunch tomorrow. Thank you for a quick and easy dinner.

  13. says

    We are a HH consuming household, too. I am content in my recent victories with HFCS free catsup and whole wheat spaghetti. My sweetie is very brand loyal, so it’s taken years to get this far. Eliminating HH should be a doable goal in the next year or two. first comes Whole wheat macaroni…

  14. Shannan says

    I am a very health concious vegetarian and am raising my two kids as veggies as well. I served this dish using soy veggie crumbles and after almost 4yrs of me serving my son meals I finally got a “really good” and “can you make this again, Mom?”.

    THANK YOU!!!!!

    • Katie says

      Awesome! If it were me avoiding meat, I’d try with lentils or white beans instead of soy, because I do worry about the estrogens in unfermented soy. But – I’m glad the recipe was so easily adaptable for you!
      :) Katie

  15. Allison says

    You should try brown rice pasta! It’s more the texture of white pasta, and brown rice is a really good grain. I haven’t seen any in conventional supermarkets, but my local co-op and bulk natural foods store both stock it.

  16. Jani says

    Thank you so much, reading this post just made my day!

    A suggestion… my loved ones do not know the difference between rice pasta and the plain white stuff. No it is not homemade sourdough or whole grain, but it IS gluten free and lower in phytates from what I understand. It also cooks quicker which might be a benefit and if you do get the brown rice pasta instead of the white the colour is not much different. You could most likely sneak it by with the sauce covering it and it doesn’t taste like “healthy mom food”.

    I will bet if you whey soak your rice for the rice version of hh- and use something like white basmati it will cook up just as easy as the boxed garbage. I tend to find when I give it an extra long soak it is very quick cooking and doesn’t need much liquid at all.

    Good luck!

  17. says

    I’m still clicking around all the links but I wanted to say: I came over from 4tunate to see the Hamburger Helper upgrade because I’ve been thinking about upgrading/making from scratch some of the packaged side dishes we love, not just to make them healthier but also wheat-free for my son (if I’m making from scratch, I can use wheat-free pasta) so this is awesome! Thanks so much! (I’m going to keep clicking around to the reverse engineered carnival etc.)

  18. says

    Love it!! I’ve never bought lots of HH simply because unless it was on a super good sale, I thought it was too expensive. I’ve made my own version for years before venturing into “real food”, but now I make my own cream – o – whatever soups (which, by the way, taste infinitely better than the stuff in the red & white cans that I grew up on), use homemade broth or stock instead of bouillon, and pastured meats as often as possible. There’s a nostalgia to the taste of HH, though, sometimes I do crave it…but then I remember that the homemade stuff is way better in every way and quickly get over it. Your hubby sounds like mine…he eats because he is hungry, every now and then I get a “really good” when I ask him how something is, and I’m still battling over the pop. I recently pointed out to him how much we spend on that poison in a year, but even that didn’t faze him…sigh…baby steps eventually have to turn into grown up steps, right? Thanks for this post (:

  19. Elissa C. Teal says

    LOVE this! I ramped up the nutrition by adding 2 Tbsp of beef liver when browning the beef and at the end I added a lightly beaten raw egg and some frozen veggies (which helped cool it down quickly) so that I could serve it quickly. My kids have never had Hamburger Helper so all that extra stuff doesn’t look weird to them. :)

  20. says

    OMG I was searching for a recipe like this for last nights meal. I AM PRINTING THIS NOW! My hubby is the exact same way – with me trying to change over to a healthy, natural foods diet, and all he cares about is dinner and dinner NOW. Not in 2 hours *sigh*

  21. says

    Loved this post. Sounds delish. We use Heinz organic ketchup at home that doesn’t have corn syrup in it. It’s made with real sugar and organic tomatoes. My hubby is picky about ketchup, nothing but Heinz for him, and you can’t taste a difference from the stuff with corn syrup. Thought I’d pass that along to ya.

  22. Amanda via Facebook says

    I loved this post especially with the world series going on Praying Texas Rangers win 😉 men and their rituals

  23. Kari via Facebook says

    Loved this post. With an engineering husband, you would love If the website is no longer there, look for his videos on you tube.

  24. Chris via Facebook says

    My hubby is good, mostly, with real food. But we’re having a hard time moving to higher quality meat. It’s just sooooo expensive. I’m having a hard time changing my meal planning ideas to use way less meat so we can afford better meat.

  25. Chantelle via Facebook says

    I was doing well until I pointed out that his sacred Cheerios might not be all that healthy. I was shocked last week to learn that many cereals have Trisodium Posphate (TSP) in them! When I saw that listed that rang a bell and then I realized that’s what my hubby used to wash the walls before painting this summer! EWWWWW! The warning label on the TSP is scary!! I tossed a lot of cereal this week, which kills me spiritually/emotionally but it was the better of two evils once I was aware. So, the Cheerios lists Tripotassium Posphate instead of the TSP. Have you done anything on this? I’m rather new and would appreciate any info you might have on TPP. Thanks for what you do!

  26. says

    Chantelle Stark Kroll – yuck! No, I really haven’t even looked into any of those long chemical -sounding additives…there are so many other things wrong with cereal and other processed foods already, that what TSP or TPP do hardly makes a difference in some ways…

  27. Chris via Facebook says

    Just made this for dinner. Added green & yellow bell pepper, onion, garlic & used whole wheat pasta. We’re going to add tobasco or something to give it a little kick next time but it was a quick & easy dinner. Thanks!

  28. says

    Just wanted to let you know I’ve made this several times and we love it! And we only like the regular HH so-so. This is something we eat at least once a month now! Thanks!

  29. Amy W says

    My family love, love, loved this! I substituted beef broth for the water and added finely diced mushrooms, onions, and peppers just for some extra nutrition. You have another winning recipe!

  30. says

    Thanks for saving supper tonight, Katie! I didn’t feel good, nothing sounded good, and it was 5:20. By 6, i had a gf dinner (brown rice penne) on the table and bellies are full. I used spaghetti sauce instead of tomato and ended up not crazy about the squirt of mustard so i tempered it with some molasses. I wonder how a dollop of sour cream would’ve done instead of the mustard. :)

  31. says

    Thank you for this post. I am way into whole food and clean eating. This is a huge pet peeve for me, that people buy the boxed Hamburger Helper. I have friends that I consider good cooks, but they go nuts for HH. If you have a stocked pantry with seasonings, pasta or whatever you want, HH-type meals are extremely easy to make. You can make better and more imaginative recipes. These meals are great to use leftover pasta, rice etc. You can even gather the uncooked pasta etc leftover from other meals and put them in a canister to use for these types of meals. Expectations that you can add your own veggies to it should be part of the equation. It is easy to even hide veggies in your homemade meal as you can grind up carrots etc. in your processor and add it in the meat mixture.

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